For the Sake of Joy
“Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice!”
Nothing is more bitter than getting what you want and then finding out it wasn’t what you really needed. Dissatisfied with ourselves, our lives, we might search long and hard for a missing piece and discover, in the end, that it was never really the main thing. How many people spend years chasing a mirage that they even know to be a mirage, secretly hoping it will show up and supply a longed-for fulfillment? Anything from a relationship to career advancement to notoriety to retirement can be that future fantasy.
Everything in this world, good and bad, is stamped with an expiration date: sooner or later, but always. Our desire for good things, for pleasure, is God-given. But if wholesome desires take a wrong turn, we end up trying to make limited people and things do an infinite thing: satisfy our restless hearts. Saint Augustine memorably confessed his own detours in seeking the Lord:
You were within and I without, and there did I seek You. I, in my ugliness, rushed heedlessly among the beautiful things that You made. You were with me, but I was not with You.
Scripture’s frequent warnings against the world’s seductions and deceptions indirectly points to how ready we are to ignore content and believe in appearances, to go by looks rather than substance—or even to walk by sight and not by faith. This makes our Savior’s question regarding St John the Baptist equally relevant for us and Christians of every age: “What then did you go out to see?” (Luke 7:25)
In following Christ what do we “go out” for?
Jesus is always quick to confront would-be followers with stark alternatives: Unless you are willing to part with everything, including your own life, unless you bear your own cross, unless you renounce all that you have, you cannot be my disciple. Discipleship has absolute conditions that make us question our motivations. We might wonder if we’re being asked to purify ourselves by pitting pleasure against pain—false pleasure against real pain—and leave it at that.
But setting crooked ways straight within isn’t accomplished by replacing a desire for delight with the pursuit of pain. Christian self-denial doesn’t mean denying the good in ourselves but the distortions of good. And since exaggerations can sidetrack even our best pursuits, we must look to Him who shows us not only what we should go out for, but how to go about it.
“For the joy that was set before him,” St Paul says, “Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame,” therefore, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (cf. Heb 12:1-2). We are to run our own race, in other words, with the mind of Christ Jesus—having joy set before us. Even with the cross upon us, we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14).
Aligning our own joy with Christ’s is what bends the crooked soul back into recognizable shape. “That my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full” is the Lord’s express wish for us (Jn 15:11). His is a restorative, healing joy that sets our heart in order by directing its loves aright. When the Lord commands a love that takes up our whole mind, heart, and strength, He is really telling us to take our delight in the Lord, because where our treasure is, there will our heart be as well (cf. Isaiah 58:14).
Since every disciple’s life-goal is to be like his Master, then in my own way, I need to have the same goal that Jesus set before Himself. If He endured the cross for the sake of the several joys of accomplishing the Father’s will, saving sinners, and His own glorious resurrection, then I should look in the same direction for both inspiration and motivation.
It’s impossible for human beings not to act without some end in view; even trivial and illusory ones count. But if you’re going to run without hitting a dead end, your desire had better be keen, and your aim true, for an unchanging, immovable destination. The path to life, after all, is narrow—like a needle’s eye. But narrow not because the goal is small, but because our disordered desires for empty joys must be shed before we can stand before God and experience “fullness of joy in his presence, everlasting pleasures at his right hand” (cf. Ps 16:11).
Of course, we expect nothing less from Heaven than full happiness. But since our earthly lives are so often consumed with mere survival—from keeping body and soul together to keeping our sanity—we might wonder if we have enough time and energy left over for rejoicing here below. A good night’s sleep might seem like reward enough.
But Christ’s joy takes us further than a moment’s repose or a day’s celebration. It isn’t a reward for having finished all of our work and ridded our lives of every conflict. It isn’t reserved for the carefree, the privileged few who somehow manage to rise above the rat race.
Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, not of the feelings: “We rejoice in our sufferings … because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rm 5:3-5). Jesus encourages us to ask for this outpouring: “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (Jn 16:24).
More than a wish list of things, Jesus wants us to set our sights on the higher gifts, even the highest gift, so that our joy can be supreme. That gift is nothing other than love or charity—which rejoices over what is true and good (cf. 1 Cor 12:31-13:1-7). Right love brings real joy. St Thomas Aquinas teaches that love is joy’s prerequisite. Love causes joy mainly because the beloved is present to us, and this is delightful. St Paul tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always,” because He is near (cf. Phil 4:4-5). “Love brings joy,” St Josemaria says, echoing St Thomas, but not just any type of love can bring the joy that Jesus wants us to have:
Love has certain standard features. Sometimes we speak of love as if it were an impulse to self-satisfaction or a mere means to selfish fulfilment of one’s own personality. But that’s not love. True love means going out of oneself, giving oneself. Love brings joy, but a joy whose roots are in the shape of a cross. As long as we are on earth and have not yet arrived at the fullness of the future life, we can never have true love without sacrifice and pain. This pain becomes sweet and lovable; it is the source of interior joy. (Christ is Passing By, no. 43)
St John the Baptist, the prophet of the Lord’s advent, understood this. Under arrest and sitting chained up in his dungeon, he was yet immersed in joy. A victim of politics, vengeance, envy, spite—there he sat in irons, rejoicing. His joy could exist side-by-side with suffering because it didn’t depend on circumstances, environment, the good opinion of others, but on an interior gift: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the [Gospel] in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6).
The joy that the Lord wishes to share with us is His joy—a joy that both accompanies and comes after cross-bearing in union with Him. It completely leaves self behind and devotes all its energy to loving God and neighbor. In place of self-preoccupation, disappointment over unfulfilled dreams, or chasing a mirage of happiness, there comes a quiet but deep joy that only the Lord can give—and which, as He promises, no one shall take away (Jn 16:22).